Sunday, December 25, 2016

Hard Christmas

Christmas is not hard on kids. Well, there is the waiting. And the wondering what you'll get. And the trying to be extra-good so you get what you wanted. Kids aren't good at patience and waiting. So maybe it's a wee bit hard on kids.

But Christmas is really hard on parents. They're the ones engineering Christmas for the family. They're the ones purchasing presents and paper and trees. They're the ones setting up the trees and cooking the food and arranging for visiting relatives. This was true 60 years ago in Great Britain because C.S. Lewis said that after the hectic season leading up to Christmas, people look less like they've been celebrating and more like they've just had a major illness. They need a holiday to recover from the holiday.

The first Christmas wasn't much better. Contrary to our Hallmark card vision of the nativity, Mary and Joseph had a tough time. First, there was the timing of the pregnancy. Betrothal at that time and in that culture was as binding as marriage but without the sex. Mary was right to be troubled by the angel's announcement. Getting pregnant before actually sleeping with Joseph could get her killed. If Joseph was mad enough, he could denounce her and they would drag Mary out of town and stone her to death. Joseph shows mercy in the solution he came up with, quietly divorcing her, but still the outcome would be bad for her. She would be a fallen woman with a child, damaged goods. She would probably have to leave her hometown and finding another husband would be very difficult. As a single woman with a fatherless child she would be a disgrace in an honor/shame culture, with absolutely no social standing or economic power.

But by not getting rid of Mary, Joseph would lose his standing as a righteous man, a Jew who scrupulously followed the law. There would always be rumors. He would also be seen as damaged goods by the religious community of his small town. Yet as Mary did when visited by an angel, Joseph accepts God's will and does the right thing, despite the personal consequences.

So both Mary and Joseph showed a lot of courage in what they did. But it wasn't smooth sailing from there. The Roman Empire held one of its periodic censuses. Unlike the ones we are used to, this was primarily for accurate tax records. Which means Joseph will have to go back to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. Why? He probably had some family property there. Otherwise, he could have stayed in Nazareth, his current town. But this means at least 3 days travel because the Holy Land is as long as the Keys and Joseph will have to walk it with whatever provisions he needed.

And he is faced with a choice: take his pregnant, due-any-day wife with him or leave her behind. Whether it was to spare her the malicious gossip of a small town, where she may have lost friends due to her condition or whether it's because they loved each other, they decide to travel together. Which means twice as many provisions. And possibly a donkey, though scripture doesn't tell us this poor couple actually used one. So things just get harder.

Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the level of difficulty goes up because (A) housing is a problem and (B) Mary goes into labor. I am reading the excellent book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey. He explains that the traditional translation of Luke 2:7 (“...there was no place for them in the inn.”) is wrong. What it should say is that there was no place for them in the guest room. If Joseph is going to his hometown, where he owns property, he surely has relatives, however distant, there. And by the rules of Middle Eastern hospitality, nobody was going to let Joseph and his wife in labor sleep in a corral. But if the guest room was already occupied, they would have to sleep in the only other room, the main family room. This room was typically built on two levels. As you walked through the door, you would be on the lower level. At night, your animals (a cow, a donkey, some sheep) would be brought in and stay there. Steps from that level lead up 2 or 3 feet to a raised portion where the family did everything, including eating and sleeping. Between the two levels, on the lip of raised part, was a feeding trough or two for the animals. So Mary would have delivered in the family room, raised above the animal stall but one of the feed boxes would have been commandeered for use as a makeshift cradle for Jesus. So, no, they wouldn't have been in a cave or a rickety shed exposed to the elements but, yeah, it wouldn't have been that pleasant, and the animals would be right there, doing their business. Imagine delivering a baby in a studio apartment with a small menagerie looking on and smelling up the place.

So this is how the Messiah enters the world, not in a hospital, not laid in an incubator but in the living room/bedroom of a tiny family home, crowded with relatives and livestock. God wasn't making things cushy for the people raising his son.

Now think about how you would treat your son. Would you have him born in those circumstances? Surely there were some rich descendants of David to serve as parents. Why didn't God put his son in a better environment with more resources available to him?

The vast majority of the people in the world are not wealthy. In fact, Oxfam published a study this year that showed that the earth's 62 richest individuals have wealth equal to that of half the world's population; 62 persons have as much 3½ billion people. The worldwide median household income is just under $10,000. The wealthy have always been less representative of the bulk of humanity.  So if God wants his son to understand how the average human being lives, he needs to put him with a poor family. (And we know that Mary and Joseph are poor because when they go to the temple to make an offering for the birth of Jesus, they give a pair of doves or pigeons, the least expensive offering required by the Torah.)

This difficult Christmas would be followed by a difficult life. Mary and Joseph would have at least 4 more sons and an indeterminate number of daughters. Joseph apparently dies before Jesus sees the age of 30, so for a while he is the family breadwinner. His mother is a widow and Jesus actually makes provision for his beloved disciple to take care of her—and he does this from the cross!

We have this idyllic picture of the birth of Jesus. It was anything but. And his life was not an easy one. And that's a good thing. Our lives are not easy. We deal with financial problems, family problems, disease and death. And Jesus did too. We know pain, both emotional and physical. Jesus did too. And when you are suffering it helps to know and talk with someone who's been there. Which means we can talk to Jesus about whatever we are undergoing and know that he understands and will act out of love to help us get through it.

To return to Mary and Joseph, what can we learn from them? First, when God is asking something of you, have the courage to say “Yes.” But don't expect an easy time doing what God wants you to. It is a measure of God's trust that he gives us challenging tasks. If your 2 year old wants to help you do a chore you give her something very easy to do, something she almost can't fail at. You can ask a 12 year old to do things that require a higher level of difficulty. God trusts us so much that he gives us tasks that require intelligence, persistence, strength and even creativity. As always we have his help but not to the point that we are mere puppets. Instead he extends to us the privilege of serving him as people created in his image.

Secondly, I think what we can learn is you can do what God asks even when you don't have all the resources to do it “properly.” Mary could have said, “Thanks, Gabriel, but I'm barely out of puberty. There is no way I am prepared to raise God's son. Go ask Dinah down the street. She's already married and has done a good job with her twins.” Joseph could have said, “Thanks, but I am not a rich landowner; I'm a carpenter who does a bunch of small jobs to eke out a living. It's going to be a stretch to support a wife. I don't think we could handle a kid at this point. Try Abinadab, who owns a vineyard on the outskirts of town.”

But they didn't. They said, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” And then they made do. Gotta travel so close to the due date? OK. Gonna have the baby in a distant relative's living room with a bunch of animals standing about? Very well. Gotta pick up and move in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid the wrath of a homicidal, paranoid monarch? Let's get cracking. Mary and Joseph's can-do attitude is an vital one in following God.

Our church is not unusual in being small and struggling. Sadly, most churches, especially in rural setting, are in the same boat. But the original church was a handful of people meeting in an upstairs room. As the church spread it encountered official persecution. They couldn't build churches, so they met in people's homes. They would have loved to have a dedicated worship space like this. For that matter, there are lots of third world churches whose members would weep with joy to have our kitchen. They would be awed to have access to our humble computer. And they would not know what to make of our air conditioning. To them our little church would be a veritable temple.

Our biggest resource is ourselves. We all have brains and education. We all have skills and talents. We all have friends and acquaintances. When we need to, we can think things out. We can draw upon the gifts of our members to do what needs to be done. We can invite people we know to join us. We can do it if we have to. We have to grow. Once something stops growing, it starts dying.

We need to let go of the idea that we can't do anything unless we can do it perfectly. That's a great recipe to not get anything done. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” All early attempts are imperfect. Everything needs to be refined as it goes along. Edison had to try out at least 100 different materials till he found the right filament for his light bulb. Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 publishers before it was accepted. During its first 28 attempts to launch a rocket into space, NASA had 20 failures.

Maybe that's why the angel greeted both Mary and Joseph with the same words—“Do not be afraid.” We mustn't be afraid to fail. We must instead be afraid of saying “No” to God when he is leading us in an unconventional direction. And we have something those famous failures who eventually succeeded didn't: the Spirit of God working in us.

The first Christmas was a disaster. But the person Jesus grew into was a triumph. The world tells us you need to be extraordinary to do extraordinary things. The Bible shows us that's not true. Mary and Joseph did what they could with what they had and, with God's help, that was enough. We need their courage to look at the unlikely task God has asked of us and say, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Hero's Quest

We understand the world and ourselves in terms of stories. Kids get hooked on stories early. We read stories to them. They see them on TV. And they eventually want to hear the story of their family, how Mommy and Daddy met or stories of what they did as a baby. Our faith is transmitted largely through stories. And Joseph Campbell noticed that almost all stories have the same structure. They start with a protagonist who is called to adventure. He leaves his home and travels to another place. He encounters various trials. He may receive help from a father figure. He may be enticed by a woman. He discovers a great boon and returns home with it, the master of two realms. And while perhaps not all stories fit the Hero's Quest, as Campbell called it, most of the great ones, the ones that resonate with us, do.

Let's take two from pop culture. Star Wars was consciously modeled after Campbell's theories. The hero, Luke Skywalker, lives on a boring desert planet. His call to adventure is the message from Princess Leia that he discovers in the droid his uncle just bought. That leads him to Obi-wan Kenobi, a father figure who aids him by teaching him the ways of the Force. They travel in the Millennium Falcon into space and are pulled into the Death Star. Luke and his companions rescue the princess. Obi-wan sacrifices himself so they can escape. They return with the rebels. Luke destroys the Death Star with the help of the Force and returns a hero.

The Godfather also fits the pattern set out by Campbell. Michael Corleone is the son of Vito Corleone, a Mafia don. Michael is a war hero, a Marine, with a college education whom his father hopes will go legit and become a senator. Then Vito is gunned down in a mob war and Michael decides to avenge his father. With the help of Clemenza, a capo and friend of his father, Michael kills the men responsible and flees the country to Sicily. There he marries a local girl who is killed by a car bomb meant for him. He returns to avenge his brother Sonny and take over his father's business. He becomes the new godfather.

Interesting how both a story of heroism and a story of a man becoming the monster his father was both follow the main points of the Hero's Quest, or to use Campbell's other name for the story, the monomyth. For this reason I rather like Dan Harmon's simplification of the story. In his version, the protagonist starts out in a comfortable or at least a familiar place. Yet something is not right. He needs something in order to fix it. He leaves to get it and goes to another place, often a place of chaos. As he searches for what he needs, he undergoes trials and learns to adapt to the new order of things. He finds what he needs and takes it but pays a great price. He returns but is a changed person.

Now you can see more clearly the parallels between the two stories. Luke is called from the farm he grew up on. Michael is called from a comfortable life. Luke needs to go get the princess. Michael needs to protect his father and avenge him. Luke joins the rebellion and goes into space. Michael joins in the ways of the Mafia and flees to Sicily. In the Death Star Luke meets Leia, who kisses him. In Sicily Michael marries Apollonia. Luke destroys the Death Star and flies back to the rebel base. Michael kills the heads of the 5 families and returns to the family business. Luke becomes a Jedi knight. Michael becomes a Mafia don.

It works with just about any story, whether the protagonist is good or bad. It works with superhero stories, coming of age stories, rags to riches stories, science fiction stories, historical romances, and detective stories. Why is it so universal? Is there an archetype deep in our collective psyche?

Let's look at the story that brings us here tonight. The Son of God lives eternally in God his Father's love. But something is not right with the earth, God's creation. It has become corrupted with sin and evil. He leaves heaven to come to earth and become a human being. Though he speaks the truth about God's love and forgiveness, he nevertheless faces opposition. He finds a few people who believe him. He is tried and crucified by those who don't. He descends into the realm of death. He returns from death to life, bestows his Spirit upon his followers and returns to the Father. It fits.

But there is something that is different about this story. Luke has a lightsaber and an X-wing jet. His quest ends in the death of the millions who live on the planet-sized Death Star, including technicians and food workers and janitors. Michael has guns and an army of mob assassins and achieve his goal by taking out his enemies. Batman tries not to kill his enemies but he is not opposed to beating them into unconsciousness and hurling sharp batarangs into them. Superman can level cities in his fights. The Lord of the Rings features several battles. Robin Hood shoots knights with his arrows. King Arthur and his knights wield their swords. In almost all of our stories the good guys win by committing violence upon the bad guys.

But that's what we see in this world, isn't it? Bad guys have no qualms about hurting good guys so good guys should retaliate by hurting bad guys, right? Of course in the real world the definition of who is good and who is bad is harder to determine. They are all human beings who can and often do both good things and bad things. And from their own viewpoint, nobody sees themselves as evil.

Let's say someone hates our president, wants to remove him from power and then invades with overwhelming force. In our eyes they are the bad guys. But let's say this is Iraq, our president is Saddam Hussein and the invaders are Americans. To most Iraqis the Americans are not the good guys. That's why a lot of their top officers joined ISIS. To them we are the evil Empire and they are the scrappy rebels. Because if both sides are using the same basic tactics—violence—it's tough to tell who is good and who is bad.

In the movies the difference between the two sides is that bad guys kill good guys whereas good guys kill bad guys. But after a while Hollywood figured out that this isn't a very useful moral yardstick. One of the things that bothered me about the Matrix movies is that they establish that if you kill someone in the matrix you kill the human person in the real world, who is, by the way, just being used as a battery and is unaware that they are avatars in a simulation. Plus these people can be taken over by Agent Smith and his ilk. So Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are killing other humans who are unwitting pawns of the programs.

So now bad guys in the movies are robots or aliens or zombies or vampires or orcs. That way the good guys can kill a slew of them without looking like they are committing war crimes like genocide. But that also means those stories we love are not very useful in dealing with evil in the much more complex real world with human beings.

And indeed what we seldom see in the fantasy wars of the cinema are things like the ruins of Aleppo. We don't see the widows and orphans that blowing up the Death Star left. We don't see the dead children, the people with missing limbs, the soldiers with brain damage, or the survivors with PTSD that we see in real life. That's what war does. That's why real soldiers, like my dad was, rarely talk about war and what it's really like. And if they try and are honest about it, they find that family and friends are so upset they stop asking about it. That's why Frodo is not a happy hero at the end of the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in World War 1. He couldn't even pretty up war's effects in his fantasy world.

What's different about Jesus' story is that his only weapons are truth and the power to give life. Instead of wounding others, he heals them. Instead of killing people, he raises them from the dead. Instead of establishing his kingdom by shedding the blood of his enemies, his kingdom is based on letting them shed his blood.

People say Jesus is naive. They say his way won't work. They also say one definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. People have been fighting and killing each other for 10s of thousands of years. According to the UN there are at any given time about 40 wars going on around the world. It hasn't made the earth noticeably better.

But what about Jesus' way? Hasn't it been tried and found wanting? On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity has been found to be difficult and not tried. Not in any large or sustained way. When people have tried to truly love their neighbors, to really forgive others as they wish to be forgiven, to actually reach out and listen to and show love to their enemies, it has worked.

Johnny Lee Clary joined the Ku Klux Klan when he was 14 and was the Imperial Wizard, the head of the KKK, by age 30. He believed in white supremacy and in violence against non-whites. He even set fire to the church of the Rev. Wade Watts, a black civil rights advocate. But his contact with Watts, with whom he debated several times, changed him. Not only did he leave the Klan, and work with Watts and the NAACP, he eventually became a minister. He was the only white man ever ordained in the black Church of God in Christ. He was a changed man.

Joshua Milton Blahyi was a feared warlord in the African nation of Liberia. He led child soldiers into battle in the 90s when Liberia was controlled by rival militias. He went into battle wearing only shoes and magic charms he believed would protect him from bullets. He believed that cannibalism and human sacrifice was necessary for the magic to work. He claims he killed thousands of people. After one battle he saw a vision of Jesus and he left the battlefield. When the hostilities were over and Liberia had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Blahyi was the first warlord to testify. He confessed to his crimes and said he was sorry. In 2007 he founded Journeys Against Violence to rehabilitate the former child soldiers he led. He lives in modest quarters and preaches in small churches that if God can forgive him, he can forgive anyone.

When I was chaplain at the jail, the Bibles I distributed from the American Bible Society had a forward written by David Berkowitz. Yes, the infamous Son of Sam who shot 13 people, killing 6. In prison in 1987, he became a Christian. In 2002 he was up for parole. He wrote the Governor of New York and asked that his parole hearing be canceled. He wrote, “In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God's help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment.” He has continued to refuse parole. In his introduction to the Bible, he said that he has been called to minister to his fellow prisoners.

In our stories, we divide everyone into good guys and bad guys. The story is about how the good guys get rid of the bad guys. Jesus' story is, too. But the way he eliminates bad guys is by turning them into good guys. He forgives and heals and restores them to the persons God intended them to be. Sometimes one of our stories is about a bad guy with a guilty conscience who is trying to redeem himself. Jesus redeems others by taking upon himself the consequences of what they are guilty of.

In our minds, our life is a story and we are the hero or heroine. We know something is not right and we seek that which will make things better. We look for what we are missing among the stuff the world tells us is important—money, sex, power, admiration, vindication, etc. How do we go about it? We may not use violence but do we in other ways ignore the needs of others in order to get it? And when we get it, if we get it, is it really all it's cracked up to be? Does it fill the emptiness we sometimes feel? Did what we do to get it change us? Does it make us into a better person or not?

Jesus is calling us to adventure. He is calling us to make his story our story. He says what we need is the love and healing and forgiveness and sense of purpose only he can give. But we need to leave the rut of our comfortable life, or maybe our uncomfortable but familiar life, and venture into a new life. He won't lie to us. There will be trials and temptations. There will be times when you will be challenged for doing not the wrong thing but the right thing. You will have to leave behind cherished thoughts and habits that are really unhelpful and self-defeating in order to find new ways of thinking and acting that are actually healthy and liberating. But he will imbue you with his Spirit and guide you through the dark times and hold your hand through the scary parts. And it will change you. You will become the person God wants you to be, the person he created you to be.

It may not be glamorous. After all, the one who calls you was born in a barn and his cradle was a feeding trough. He didn't lift x-wings out of swamps; he lifted people from illness and despair. He didn't battle dragons with a magic sword; he fought ignorance, indifference, hypocrisy and arrogance with truth, compassion, integrity and humility. He didn't kill the bad guys; they killed him. And then he rose again. And it is he whom we remember and revere, not them. Nobody says they want to be like Pilate or Caiaphas; they want to be like Jesus.

And that's what he calls us to: to be like him—to heal, not to harm; to build up, not to destroy; to unite, not to divide; to love, not to hate; to be Christlike.

The stories of Johnny Lee Clary, Joshua Milton Blahyi, and David Berkowitz should have had very different endings. In the movies, they would have. They would have been villains, destined to die at the hands of the hero. But Jesus is their hero. He stepped into the picture and their stories went in unexpected directions. In a major plot twist, the bad guys turned into good guys.

Where is your story headed? Is it turning bad? Is it turning sad? Is it turning scary? Or is it just meandering? It can change. You can change. Your past need not determine your future. Every second is a second chance to turn things around.

Jesus is calling. He is calling you to be part of something bigger, something greater, something nobler. Don't stay on the farm; don't stay in the Shire; don't stay in Kansas anymore. There is something wrong with this world and you can be one of those people who makes it better. You can be a peacemaker, a light to the world, a child of God, a hero. Like Jesus. Christ is born today; the new you in Christ can be too. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What's in a Name?

I saw a post on Facebook that showed some Russians in royal regalia. It was captioned, “Watching Dancing with the Tsars. Peter and Catherine were great but Ivan was terrible.” Some people get nicknames, including important people. We call various kings and queens and even popes “the Great.” Some of these nicknames have to do with looks, some with achievements, some with temperment. So we have Demetrius the Invincible of Bactria, Eric the Kindhearted of Denmark, and Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia, better known as Dracula. Two Austrian dukes were called Leopold the Able. William 1 was called William the Conqueror. He was also called William the Bastard by critics. Because sometimes the nickname that sticks is less than complimentary. Thus France has a king called Charles the Bald. There is a John the Careless of Aragon, an Alfonso the Fat of Portugal, a Wilfred the Hairy of Urgel, a Henry the Impotent of Castile, Ludwig the Mad of Bavaria. One of my favorites was Eric the Memorable of Denmark. Memorable for what, though? His looks? His manners? His statesmenship? Turns out it was his harshness. Why is he given such an ambiguous moniker when Eric the Harsh is arguably more memorable?

A lot of people think Jesus' last name was Christ. But people didn't have last names as such in those days. People knew him as Jesus of Nazareth, the town he grew up in. Christ is his title. It is the Greek translation of Messiah, which in turn means the Anointed. That's why sometimes in scripture he is called Christ Jesus. It is like calling him King Jesus. He is the anointed prophet, priest and king, promised by God.

Jesus has acquired a lot of titles over the years, mostly from scripture. “Emmanuel” is one mentioned in both our Old Testament (Isaiah 7:10-16) and Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) today. It means “God with us.” In the original prophesy it was probably a reference to Isaiah's yet unborn son and a sign God was sending King Ahaz of Judah not to enter into an unwise alliance. The king needn't act because the two kings who troubled him would not last long enough for Isaiah's son to get to the age where he could tell right from wrong. So in this context, the name means “God is on our side and will protect us.” But as with many prophesies, there is a second meaning and a second fulfillment to come. In Jesus' case it has come to mean “God is literally with us” as in “one of us.”

In the book The World's Religions author Huston Smith characterizes each religion with a phrase. Christianity is called “the religion of love.” That is our defining characteristic. God is love, as it says in 1 John 4:8. The two great commandments are to love God and to love each other. But what is really unique is that at the heart of Christianity is that God loves us so much that he becomes one of us to rescue us from ourselves, even at the expense of his life. In most religions God is totally separate from his creatures and he would never deign to come down to our level. But in Jesus God comes to live and die as one of us and he does it to destroy the separation that exists between him and his creatures. He does it so we can be like him. As C.S. Lewis said, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” Again Lewis points out that we are creations of God, as a toy soldier is the creation of a man. What God is doing is akin to making that toy become a real person, like him. We are being transformed from mere creatures of God to children of God. And to do that God became one of us.

Some people might like a God removed from humanity, an objective judge. But in Jesus we have a God who knows what our lives are actually like and that makes a big difference. I had many excellent nurses while in the nursing home but my favorite was Emily. I think I have mentioned her before. She was not only sweet and conscientious but she had, like me, been in a head-on accident. She also was almost killed and had to be worked on before going to the hospital. She also woke up in an ICU, hooked up to lots of machines. She also had to learn to walk all over again. She was 16 at the time. So she knew what I was going through in a way that even my doctors did not know. That gave me someone I could confide in and take advice from.

And Jesus, by virtue of living as a poor working man, knows what our lives are like. He asks no more of us than he asked of himself. Like Emily did for me, he can show us empathy and give us encouragement. He knows what we are and what we can be.

There are other titles Jesus is given throughout the Bible. He called himself the Good Shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, gives us sustenance and protects us. He is not just doing a job like other shepherds would. He is willing to give his life to save his sheep.

He is called the Prince of Peace. Peace, shalom in Hebrew, means not the mere absence of conflict but total well-being. Jesus brings us the peace which passes all understanding by healing us and restoring us to what God intended us to be.

He is called Lord. In Jesus' day the word could simply be a respectful title, like master or rabbi. But Jews also used it in lieu of saying God's name. And very early in the church it began to mean Jesus is God. He is Lord of all creation. Again C.S. Lewis in his statement of the trilemma pointed out that anyone who said what Jesus did could not simply be called a great moral teacher. He claimed divinity. Either that was true or false. If it was false and he knew it, he was a conman and deceiver. And an unsuccessful one since it got him crucified. If it was false and he didn't know it was, he was delusional, like many of the mentally ill people I worked with as a psych nurse or visited in jail as a chaplain. But if it was true, he is indeed God. Those are the only choices open to us: either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. And those who knew him and lived with him for 3 years, watching him heal others, who saw him die and then touched the risen Jesus, declared him to be, in the words of Thomas, “my Lord and my God.”

He is called the Word. In Greek, logos also was a philosophical term used by both Greeks and Jews. To the Greeks it was the plan and reason behind creation; to the Jews it was the wisdom of God personified, by which God made the universe. Christians in trying to figure out how Jesus was related to God often used this term to show that Jesus is the expression of who God is. He is also the rhyme and reason of creation. God created everything with and through Christ.

We Christians make a distinction between the living Word of God, meaning Jesus, and the written Word of God, meaning the Bible. The Bible's primary value is in pointing us to Jesus and communicating to us about him. It's an important distinction to make because some Christians come close to worshiping the Bible and forgetting that we should reserve worship for Jesus, the living Word or expression of God.

Jesus liked to call himself the Son of Man. It appears 81 times in the 4 gospels. The expression could simply mean “a man” but Jesus imbues it with authority. He said the Son of Man has the power to judge men (John 5:27). The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27-28). The Son of Man will be seen sitting on the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62), which recalls the passage that probably inspired Jesus' use of the phrase. Daniel 7:13-14 says, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” And Jesus always uses the definite article. He is The Son of Man.

What is interesting is that he also uses this same term when talking of his sacrificial life and death. In Luke 18:31-34 it says, “Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, 'Behold, we are going to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge him and kill him. And the third day he will rise again.” And though Daniel gives this exalted picture of the son of man, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Jesus is called the Son of God. Now initially this may seem to simply go along with his being called the Son of David, because kings in the Middle East were often called the Son of God. The Emperor Augustus took the title Son of the Divine One. But in Jesus' case, this is not merely a royal conceit. He is called the Son of God when Gabriel tells Mary who her child is to be. At his baptism he is called “my beloved son” by the voice from heaven. In Matthew 16:15-16, when Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, Peter says he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And when the earthquake takes place at the crucifixion the awed centurion says, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) Jesus is literally God's only begotten, which means unique, Son. God so loved the world that he didn't delegate his mission to a mere human or even an angel. He did it himself. As Paul writes, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (1 Corinthians 5:19)

Jesus is called the Lamb of God. John the Baptist uses this term in John's gospel. The reference is to the sacrificial lamb offered in the temple for sins as well as the Passover lamb, whose blood was painted on the doorposts so death would pass over God's people. This not only points to Jesus' death to save us from our sin but also points to the Eucharist where we, like the Hebrews, eat the flesh of the lamb whose blood saves us from death.

Jesus is called King of kings and Lord of lords. A lot of people don't realize that this was actually a title given to the Roman Emperor. He ruled over the kingdoms the Empire had conquered and thus was a king over other kings. This title was one of the reasons the Caesars did not like Christianity when it appeared on their radar. They saw Jesus as a rival, especially once they started to declare themselves gods. Want to know why Revelation is such a difficult book to understand? Precisely because its message was cloaked in imagery from the Old Testament prophets in order that Rome wouldn't destroy it. It was a message of comfort to persecuted Christians to hold on. Things would get bad but God and his Christ would triumph in the end. His kingdom would come to the earth, the kingdoms of this world would become the kingdom of our Lord and Jesus would be recognized as the true King of kings and Lord of lords.

Obviously I could do a sermon on each of these titles. Why trot them all out in just one? Because, like nicknames, you don't get to choose what people call you. They are hung on you by others. They reflect how others see you. And they stick. Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as Tricky Dick and Bill Clinton as Slick Willie. Washington will always be the Father of his Country. Just so, aside from Son of Man and the Good Shepherd, Jesus was given these titles, just as he was given his personal name: Yeshua, Yahweh saves.

Just as I did with Eric the Memorable, it behooves us to look closely at Jesus and understand why he was given those names. In what way is he Emmanuel, God with us? In what way is he the Prince of Peace? In what way is he the Lamb of God? And because he is not merely of historical interest to us, we need to ask ourselves, how is he the Word of God to me? How is he the Lord to me? How is he the anointed prophet, priest and king to me?

In Advent we look forward to the coming of Jesus. But just who are we expecting? How does his coming matter—to me, to my neighbor, to the world? And once we declare him our Lord and our God, what sort of action follows on our part? If we proclaim him as King, what should we, his subjects, do next? How does a citizen, nay, an ambassador of the Kingdom of God behave?   

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Out of the Mouths of Babes

A two year old is almost pure id, to use the old Freudian terminology. That is, they don't filter what they feel or think or do or say. If they want something they take it. If they know they shouldn't take it, they are sneaky about it. They will lie if caught doing something they know they shouldn't do. But otherwise they are bluntly honest. And because of that, I have concluded that my granddaughter has her finger on the moral pulse of America.

Let me explain. At age 2 she can create a lot of chaos and endanger herself if not watched closely. My wife and I and her parents are trying to teach her the rules of sensible living. Many of the rules are safety-oriented, like “don't cross the parking lot without looking both ways and holding an adult's hand;” some are practical, like “tell someone you have to go potty before you actually do so;” some are social, like “don't shriek for the fun of it in public places;” and some are moral, like “share with your playmates” and “don't hit people when you're angry.” These rules seem largely arbitrary to her. Though we give her the reasons for them, she really doesn't understand the rules, only that they exist and that breaking them has consequences, like time outs. And on two recent occasions she has made observations about morality that stood out, at least to me. When told not to be a bad girl, she told her father, “I'm not bad; I'm happy!” And just last weekend, she was resisting going home with mommy, preferring to continue playing at our house. She kept bargaining with her mother and trying to run away and when she was told to be good, she said, “I don't want to be good!” And I thought, “You know, there are many people who are a lot older than 2 who feel the same way.”

Let's look at each of her observations.

I'm not bad; I'm happy.” A lot of folks use the same ethical rule of thumb that Hemingway did. In Death in the Afternoon, he wrote, “So far, about morals, I know only what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” That might work if you had an acutely trained conscience, but we humans are so good at rationalizing what we do that this idea is pretty much useless. Worse yet, what if the person is a psychopath or sociopath who has no empathy or fear or regrets? One sociopath was grateful for growing up in a religion that had a lot of rules because it gave her a map of acceptable behavior to make up for her lack of a moral compass. Still, she admitted to only sticking to the letter of the law and not the spirit. It did not keep her from ruthlessly destroying the lives of others, sometimes just for fun. By the way, this woman is a law professor. (Read Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M. E. Thomas. It's insightful and chilling.)

This fact is why I really don't like it when people post so-called motivational sayings on Facebook that say, in effect, “follow your dream whatever it is and don't listen to anyone else.” That's exactly what a serial killer does. I recently saw a post that said that strong-willed children should not be discouraged, because strong-willed individuals change the world. Yes, and some change it for the worst. Being strong-willed is not a virtue in and of itself. Hitler and Caligula were strong-willed. When they were given power people suffered and died. Being strong-willed is only good when the person is dedicated to doing the right thing and can't be dissuaded by considerable opposition, such as Florence Nightingale and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and indeed our Lord. Of course, one of the factors that drove them was a strong sense that the Golden Rule should not be trumped by feelings to the contrary, and all of them were assaulted by negative feelings which they refused to act on.

Even if you are not a sociopath or psychopath, feelings are not a good guide to morality. We know we should treat others as we would like to be treated, but we are more likely to treat people as we feel we have been treated. And we often pay forward bad behavior we receive. The classic example is the guy who gets yelled at by his boss and then goes home and kicks his dog. When we are hurting, hungry, upset or tired, we are prone to lash out at people, even if they don't deserve it. The reason why absolutely no ethicist or moral teacher would endorse Hemingway's definition is that moral rules, like traffic laws, should apply regardless of your emotional state. Otherwise you are just acting as a 2 year old, doing whatever pleases you and whatever you can get away with. We have enough of that already.

Now doing the right thing will generally make you happier in most circumstances. Again, unless you have no empathy, treating someone badly should bother you and treating them very badly should make you miserable. Conversely, helping others should make you feel better if you have a functioning conscience. And once again scientists have found that helping others activates the reward centers of the brain. Altruism and gratitude and being a valued part of a community are all behaviors science says help one's mental health and one's physical health as well.

Still scientists have found that punishing people who do bad things also activates the reward center of the brain. One wonders if people who are single-minded in their focus those they see as doing wrong and obsessed with punishing them aren't in fact addicted to vengeance, the way other people are to drugs. That could be the motive for a lot of vigilante behavior. Maybe Batman gets a lot of pleasure from beating up bad guys and maybe losing his parents has simply become the way he justifies it. In the real world, maybe the leaders of ISIS are just retribution junkies, getting high off of beheading and raping the people they say are the real problem with the world.

As we've seen, you can't seriously use happiness and unhappiness as guides to ethical behavior. Sometimes doing the right thing will unfortunately make you unhappy, such as when everyone else disagrees with you. We need people who, when necessary, can stand up to the crowd and say, “No. What you are thinking of doing is wrong.” Again experiments have shown that peer pressure can make people agree to things they know to be false, do things they know to be wrong and ignore real signs of danger simply because everyone else is. Mob mentality is a real thing and it takes a lot of courage and conviction to hold fast to what you know is right. Jesus warns us that following him would lead to persecution. What's sad is how it only takes the threat of merely being unpopular to make most so-called Christians go along with the crowd.

Which leads to my granddaughter's second observation: “I don't want to be good.” When she said it, we all empathized with her. We all know what it's like to not want to be the good guy or the good girl, at least in the present situation. We want to be able to punch the annoying person's lights out, or stray from our marriage with the attractive coworker, or blame our mistake on someone else and let them get yelled at or fired. Sometimes it seems that the people who misbehave have all the fun. Sometimes it seems like the ruthless jerks get ahead in life. Sometimes it seems like, to quote Mordred's song in Camelot, “It's not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.”

And let's face it, that is true at times. Drunk people seem to have a lot more fun at parties. (Or at least the ones who don't get belligerent or morose when drunk. Or who don't wrap their car around a tree afterwards, killing a friend or strangers or themselves or waking up paralyzed.) Certainly the guy at work we suspect is a psychopath seems to be able to climb the company ladder more effortlessly that those who are truthful and conscientious. And the Bible recognizes this. Jeremiah 12:1 says, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I plead with you; yet let me talk with you about your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” Similarly Job says, “Why do the wicked live and grow old, yes, become mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them....They spend their days in wealth, and in peace go down to the grave.” (Job 21:7-9, 13) The same problem is noted in the Psalms and the book of Proverbs. How long will the wicked triumph?

Of course they only triumph if you look at things in purely material terms. They may have wealth but money only buys happiness if you are poor. Once your needs are met, additional money does not translate into additional happiness. In fact, if you have a lot of money, it changes your relationship with other people, including your family. On the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain sociologist Brooke Harrington discussed what she learned about the very rich when she trained as a wealth manager. Normally these billionaires confide things to their wealth managers that they don't to their families, precisely because they were concerned about their families going after their money. They would often ask the wealth manager to hide money in case of an upcoming divorce, or to support a second secret family or to avoid an inheritance fight. Like lottery winners, the very wealthy start to think everyone, including family and friends, is only after their money. She compared it to King Lear.

What we think and say and do establishes literal pathways in our brains. By continually doing or saying or thinking certain things we reinforce them, like cutting across a grassy area will over time kill the grass and leave a dirt track. So being willing to be cruel to others becomes a habit and eventually a part of who we are. Lying or cheating or stabbing someone in the back becomes a part of us. Being secretive and distrustful becomes our default setting. We tend to focus on the effect evil has on others and we forget the effect it has on the evildoer. It changes who we are. The real story of The Godfather is how Michael, the good son, becomes every bit the monster his father was.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you were only going to live for 70 or 80 years it didn't matter much how you behaved. Once you died that was it. Think of it in physical terms. If you eat nothing but junk food and don't exercise, you will get fat and ill but one day you and your diseased body will cease to exist. The suffering is limited. However, if your same body continued to exist forever, the damage you did and by now habitually do to it would continue without end. Now think of the matter as it relates to your soul and spirit. If you are to live forever, then all the twists and knots you have put in your personality, all the vices, all of the appetites overindulged in, all the anger and grudges and resentments you nursed, all of the envy of others, all of the pains and wounds and slights you've held onto, will continue for eternity. You would have to live with all that baggage, the miserable and unquiet and unpleasant person you had become, forever. Eternal life would not be a boon but a curse. It would be hell.

That is why we are told to practice our virtues. We need to reinforce them in us. We need to course-correct for all the ways we have gone astray. We need to forgive others and accept God's forgiveness of ourselves for what we have done. We need to let go of all that draws us away from God and let his Spirit transform us into new creations in Christ. Only by becoming a child of the God who is love will eternity not merely be tolerable but become a continual delight.

The wicked only seem to prosper if you look at externals, just like smoking only looks cool. Internally damage is being done. Without intervention that damage will spread and ultimately poison and sicken and deform the person. Getting sick, even spiritually, will drastically reduce one's enjoyment of life. Whereas adopting healthy habits, physically and spiritually, will strengthen and make the person better and enable them to grow properly. Becoming healthier will increase one's enjoyment of life.

Still our brains tell us erroneously that we will enjoy life more if we are not good but aim at our own personal happiness. And society at large says the same thing. And we see how well the ruthless and the selfish are rewarded and we wonder if they are right. Maybe we are wasting our time and our lives being good.

Something like that must have been going through John the Baptist's mind. He had criticized King Herod Antipas for breaking God's law and marrying his brother's ex-wife. Now John was in prison, facing death, and wondering what good he had done. He had touted Jesus as the Lamb of God, the promised one. But Jesus was not nearly as “hellfire and brimstone” as John had been. Was Jesus really the one who was to come?

In reply Jesus tells John's disciples to report back all they had observed: the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the lepers being cleansed, the dead being raised to life again and the poor hearing the good news. It may not be the way John went about it but people are being made better. Isn't that what God is all about?

I often joke that the key to a healthy diet is “If it tastes good spit it out!” Seriously we have foods whose only value is that they contain calories, tons of them. But they aren't healthy. They just make us fat and open to diabetes and heart disease and stroke and dementia. Our society has created tons of activities and products that have one key feature: they are addictive. Video games reward you by letting you play more of the game. TV shows get you hooked on outrageous plot twists and developments but don't really give you any insight into real people or the real world. Our smartphones are making it possible to spread falsehoods, oversimplifications and distortions farther and faster, and we are addicted to reading stuff that confirms our biases. And the quickest way to build a megachurch is to tell people what they want to hear. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus would never last as the pastor of a church. Eventually they would say something that would offend a major donor and be asked to leave. Because we live in a post-truth world.

Being good is not always fun. But it is better and healthier and more pleasurable though in the long run. Because we will have to live with ourselves forever, for good or for ill. We can live with Jesus forever if we simply accept him and his invitation to follow him. We can live with the source of all goodness and beauty and creativity and love forever. And that's worth putting up with the not-fun stuff today.

Now I just have to figure out how to explain that to a two year old.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Who's Gonna Fix This?

Do animals envision a better world? Do they speculate at all? Or are we humans the only ones who can imagine the world being different than it is? Scientists debate this. But it leads to an even deeper question: why are we able to do this? Where do these images of things that never were, that we have no actual experience of, come from? I can see where we get the concept of things being somewhat better. That's merely tweaking our experience. But where do we get the concept of perfection? We have never been in a situation where absolutely everything goes right. And yet we tend to judge everything against a standard of the ideal way of things working. Humans everywhere have a deep-seating feeling that such a thing as perfection exists, either in the distant past, or in the far future, or on some other plane of existence.

The Bible affirms all three. We were created to live in a paradise. God will recreate the world as a paradise sometime in the future. And heaven, where God dwells, is a paradise. But our present experience is not just of things not quite working right but of actual harm being done. We live in a world with injustice and pain, where people are violently in conflict with each other and with nature.

One way of dealing with this truth is to deny or ignore it. We try to create a bubble of comfort for ourselves and those we love. Our country makes a pretty good bubble. We only represent 7% of the earth's population. Most of us can read and write. You probably don't know any of the 14% in the world who can't. Oh, and 66% of the world's illiterate are women. We have clean water. 13% of the world's people don't. We have homes. 23% of the world's population doesn't have some sort of shelter. We are properly nourished and 36.5% of us are actually overweight. 15% of the world is malnourished and 1% is starving. Most of us have internet. 56% of the world's population doesn't. Most of us have cell phones. A quarter of the world's people do not. If you attended college, you are part of the mere 7% in the world who have. And if you make more than $90 a day, you are among the 1% in the world who do. 56% of the people in the world make between $2 and $10 a day and and additional 15% make less than $2 a day. So 71% of the world have to live on less than a moderate lunch in America costs. In consequence, 1% of the world's population controls 50% of the money.

If you live in certain places of this country, it is easy to think the way you live is the norm and that those who lack what you have must live far away in tiny pockets of the third world. But 14% of people in the US can't read, including 19% of our high school graduates. And 70% of our prison inmates can't read, which may have something to do with where they ended up. There are 643,000 homeless in our country and 44% of them are employed. 14.6% of Americans can't count on having food on any particular day. The most recent census data shows that half the US population either qualifies as poor or low income. 1 in 5 Millennials live in poverty as do 14% of seniors and 18% of children. 1½ million American households live on less than $2 a day before government benefits, which includes 2.8 million children. UNICEF ranks the US as having the 2nd highest child relative poverty rates in the developed world. Even in this country you have to live in a very tiny bubble to deny or ignore the fact that a lot of people suffer from deprivation and injustice.

Another way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to acknowledge it but to say that's just the way things are. Things are bad for some people and they will stay bad. Some will get enough to live on and some will get more than enough and some won't get either. It's always been that way and it always will be. Just give up on solving those inequities. The problem with thinking this way is that it goes against our sense of justice. So some people act as if the world is by and large a meritocracy. Oh, sure, some innocent people suffer but most of the time people get what they deserve.

We know that's not true. Remember how 44% of the homeless are employed? If this world were just, they would be able to afford a place to live. If this were a just world, then 2.8 million children in the richest country in the world wouldn't be trying to live on less than $2 a day. If this were a just world, 1% of the population wouldn't control 50% of the money. 

Now what caused those problems? Are they result of happenstance or are they intentional? Are they more like the weather or are they more like the situation when you have a bunch of kids over to play and they rush to the toy box and each grabs what they want, some more than they can actually play with, even if it means those who come last get little or nothing? In other words, do you think that the fact that a lot of people are lacking the basics is totally beyond our control, caused largely by, say, disasters, or primarily within our control, that is, caused by some people grabbing more than they need or deserve and others missing out because they weren't as powerful and aggressive as others?

The other way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to try to fix it. That's what God wants us to do. And a lot of people do try to fix the world's problems. But obviously not enough. Nonprofit organizations account for just 10.3% of all private sector jobs in the US. That's 11½ million people out of a nation of 325 million, or just over 3 people out of 100. And only 25.4% of the US population volunteer, a 10 year low. And of course, not all nonprofits do as much good as others. The Tampa Bay Times once compiled a list of the 50 worst charities, primarily those who use less than 4% of the money raised to actually aid the cause they espouse. The rest goes to salaries and fund raising. They say they do things like grant dying kid's wishes, or help disabled police officers, or veterans, or cancer patients. But they are merely taking advantage of donors' generosity to enrich themselves. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

We flawed human beings need to be fixed as well. As John the Baptist says in our gospel (Matthew 3: 1-12) we need to be baptized, immersed in the Holy Spirit. We need to be changed. And we can't do it ourselves. We need outside help. We need leadership. We need someone who not only knows how to fix the problems of this world but who knows how it is supposed to work. And that's what we get in our passage from Isaiah 11:1-10.

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse...” Jesse was the father of David. The royal line was left a stump after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the Jews into exile. Descendants of David existed but they never took the throne again when the people were allowed to return to Judea. God will remedy that.

But this Davidic ruler will be different. Roughly half of the kings of Judea were bad. But the “spirit of the Lord shall rest on” this anointed king. And then Isaiah enumerates the properties of this spirit. “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Notice that 4 out of those 6 attributes are cognitive: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. This precludes someone who acts on impulse; you want a ruler who thinks first and then acts.

Wisdom is mentioned first because it is primary. Mere intelligence is not enough. For instance, knowledge is important—you need to have the facts at your command—but you need wisdom in order to correctly use that knowledge. As they say, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Wisdom is a deeper knowledge of how things really work, as well as what really matters. In contrast, it is said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Wisdom is giving the proper weight to all factors.

Understanding is key as well. You want a ruler who has insight into people and processes. Studies have shown that psychopaths often rise to positions of leadership because of their superficial charm, ruthless manipulation of others, lack of empathy and lack of fear. In Jesus, we get someone who understands our pain and suffering. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) He is the model of the servant-leader, the person who leads not for his own benefit but for the benefit of those he governs.

Counsel is another characteristic of God's ruler. In other contexts the Hebrew word means advice. Again this flows from wisdom. Being able to take advice and give advice is something you want to see in a leader. But would the Messiah, God Incarnate, take our advice? We see that God does listen to and modify the execution of his plans when, for instance, Abraham bargains for mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and when Moses asks God to be merciful to the Israelites when they worship the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-14). Why should we pray if God is absolutely implacable? God is responsive to our input and so is his Messiah.

The remaining attributes are an attitude and power. Fear of the Lord, a proper respect and reverence for God, is the beginning of wisdom, says Proverbs 9:10. There are a lot of factors that a ruler must take into account, like his supporters and what's popular. But often those considerations have led rulers into doing things that ignore God's standards. For instance, the high feelings that people had after 9/11 led our government to resort to methods of torture, called enhanced interrogation techniques, which the laws of the world and our country prohibited. Fear of the Lord would make a leader consider what Christ said—that we must love our enemies, that we must treat others the way we wish to be treated, that what we do to others we do to Jesus—and decide not to do something that failed to meet the standards by which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ commands us to live.

And that leads us to the subject of power. Power can be used for good or for evil. Electricity can be used to electrocute a person or to get his heart rhythm back to normal. God promises that his ruler will not use power for evil but use knowledge, wisdom, counsel, understanding and respect for God in deciding how to use the power granted to him.

One way in which we see this in practice is how he uses his authority to judge. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear...” We all know how unreliable hearsay evidence is and science has confirmed that even eyewitness testimony can be flawed and manipulated. Look no further than the videotaped interrogation of Brenden Dassey, found in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Without a lawyer present, this minor is pushed by detectives to change his testimony to saying he was a participant in a horrific crime, though he is clearly unaware of the details of the crime, like what weapon was used. He also doesn't understand the consequences of signing a confession. After saying what the officers want him to say—that he raped and murdered a woman—he asks if he can return to class. By which he means his special education classes. Which he takes because his IQ is in the borderline deficiency range. He is now serving life in prison. 

In contrast, Isaiah writes about God's ruler, “...but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...” And why, you may ask, are the poor and meek addressed specifically? Because the powerful are rarely in real jeopardy. They have resources. We have seen where a corporation, like T-Mobile or Wells Fargo or Comcast or Humana (and I could go on), is fined millions of dollars and yet the company has billions and can write it off as the cost of doing business. Whereas the poor (the Hebrew word has overtones of “weak”) and the meek (the word here has overtones of the “browbeat” and the “oppressed”) are relatively powerless and need help. On NPR's interview series Here's the Thing defense attorney Dean Strang tells of one trial in which the case for including certain evidence and the case for excluding it were equally strong. The judge said that US law presumes the innocence of the defendant and so he felt he must find for the defendant. The burden to prove a crime falls on the prosecution. The judge decided for the weak.

Which leads to verse 5. I like how the Today's English Version renders it: “He will rule his people with justice and integrity.” And that's what we want.

Verses 6 through 8 give us a poetic picture of the reconciliation of nature and humanity. Predation will end not only among humans but even among animals. The vulnerable will be protected. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, “ says the Lord. Contrast that with today where the Leatherback Turtle, the Black Rhinoceros, the Chinese Crocodile, the Seychelles Sheath-tail Bat, the Dama Gazelle, the Wild Bactrian Camel and the Sumarian Orangutan are all expected to go extinct in the next 10 years.

Finally and significantly for a Jewish prophet, Isaiah says “...the nations shall inquire of him...” meaning the non-Jewish people will ask for the Messiah's counsel. Our passage from Romans 15:10 quotes Deuteronomy 32:43. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” God has not forgotten his people nor will he neglect the other nations. Under the Messiah, the Gentiles and the Jews will come together.

That is the way we want things to work, right? We want someone, and we know it can't be a mere human, who will restore justice and peace to this world. We long to see things run with knowledge, good advice, wisdom and understanding. We want power used to right wrongs and not to perpetuate them. We want nature to thrive and not wither. We want a world safe for children and the vulnerable. We want all people to come together.

That's what God initiated when he came to us in Christ Jesus. That's the work he wants us to continue till Jesus comes again. That what will be completed when Christ returns.

Or is it? When I was researching for our Bible study that commenced last Wednesday I was reading the Greek version of the annunciation in Luke. And in Luke 1:33 Gabriel tells Mary about her son: “...and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” The Greek verb for "end" also means "conclude" or "complete." So this means his kingdom will never be completed?

And then I realized, of course. When you build something you don't say, “Well, I'll never have to clean it or repair it or work on it ever again.” You need to maintain it or it will fall apart. God's kingdom isn't going into stasis; it won't be frozen, never to change. The work of maintaining justice and equity goes on. The work of maintaining peace continues. The work of learning and understanding God and those made in his image is ongoing. Our life in the new creation won't be sitting around on our fat behinds like the people on the spaceship in Wall-E. We will be doing our part in keeping the kingdom working properly.

I recently read about the difference between merely liking something and really loving it. If you like a flower, you pluck it and put it in water but eventually you have to throw the withered, dead thing out. If you love a flower, you don't pick it. You plant it and water it and fertilize it and nurture its growth. God doesn't just like us; he loves us. He's not going to press us in a book. He wants us to live and flourish and blossom. And as people who are following his son, that what's we are to do and what we will be doing ever after: loving and nurturing others, so we all grow and become ever more like our limitless, wise and loving God.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Just this week I started riding a bike—well, a trike really—to the church on the days I have office hours. When I was in physical therapy the first 15 minutes of each session was spent peddling a stationary bike. I need exercise; the weather was lovely; and I live only about a mile from here. Thanks to Peggy for lending me the adult tricycle. The only problem was that the trike had no light. So I had my son drive me to the bike shop on the island so I could pick one up. Also, I got a helmet and I got a rear view mirror that clips to my glasses. The main reason for all of those things is protection. The mirror helps me keep track of cars coming up behind me; the helmet protects me from brain damage; the light helps me see and be seen when I drive during the increasingly early twilight hours.

Everybody is, if not afraid of the dark, at least more cautious in it. Darkness hides stuff. It could be a serial killer or it could be something you might trip over. The latter concerns me more than the former. When you are driving darkness can obscure potholes or people or key deer in your path. You don't want to hit any of those. Of course, if you are a serial killer, or doing anything illegal or unethical or disreputable you might want the darkness to hide you and what you are doing. The reason we have lighted certain areas of cities or the outside of our houses and businesses is at least partially to flush out thieves and robbers and all manner of unwanted activity.

Light reveals things and by doing so, protects us from threats we otherwise might not know about. It can change the threat. Psychological experiments have shown that people do not cheat or steal when they think they might be observed. As Jesus said, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” (John 3:20) Small wonder then that light and darkness have taken on metaphorical meanings as stand-ins for good and evil.

In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, the first thing God does is create light. And in the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, God eliminates all darkness: “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 22:5) 

Light is associated with life. In the first chapter of John, Christ is called “the true light” and it says, “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:5) It is also a symbol of joy. Psalm 97:11 says, “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” It also stands for wisdom and truth. Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (By the way, notice the parallelism in the psalms, saying the same thing 2 ways. That will be important later.)

In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Since God is light and Jesus is “the light of the world,” (John 8:12) it follows that those who follow him are vessels of light. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14) Paul says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day.” (1 Thess 5:5) We are therefore to “walk in the light, as he is in light.” (1 Jn 1:7)

In our reading from Romans 13:11-14 Paul urges Christians “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It's not the first time Paul uses the metaphor of spiritual armor and it won't be the last. Paul sees us involved in a spiritual battle. In Ephesians 6:12 he writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age...” Darkness in the Bible is a symbol of death, chaos and ignorance. If we are opposing darkness, our armor must be of light.

Here we come to an issue that we cannot ignore. Paul clearly means spiritual powers in this passage. Regardless of whether you believe there are evil spirits out there—and there are times where so many things go bad that there is a cascade of catastrophes and it is tempting to see a cosmic conspiracy behind it all—I think this can even apply this to things we see. There are powers and rulers in this physical world that promote and live in darkness and shun the light. I am not one who generally believes in massive conspiracies, because they are impossible to keep secret, but the powerful have often succeeded in shaping the world not so much to benefit others as to increase and preserve their wealth and influence. They don't advertise it and they don't like it pointed out.

For instance, in the "tough on crime" 1980s and 90s, when we started incarcerating more and more people, privately-run prisons became a popular solution to keeping costs down. The problem is that they turn out to be just as expensive as government-run prisons, but because they need to turn a profit, they cut back on how they feed prisoners, on the medical care they give inmates and on programs offered to help the incarcerated better themselves. Since 1994 the number of college programs open to prisoners across the country has gone from 350 to just 12. Prisons thus ensure that little or no actual rehabilitation takes place. And since in their contracts many private prisons penalize the states they are in should they drop below a certain occupancy level, they give state and local law enforcement an incentive to lock more people up. Add to that the fact that a lot of small communities use traffic and other fines as revenue streams to support local government, and those fines grow when not totally paid off, it is actually in the interest of both towns and private prisons that crime not go down. And indeed the explosion of our prison population has not made a dent in crime.

There are other industries and even governments who do not want light shed on their activities. That's why one of the first things dictators do is stifle the press. Hitler forced out of business newspapers that opposed him, sometimes by passing laws that said Jews could not own publishing companies and sometimes by just having his thugs break in and physically destroy the offices and printing presses. It happens today. Worldwide 40 journalists have been killed so far in 2016, a third not in combat or on a dangerous assignment but by murder. Since 1992, 56 journalists have been killed in Russia, 21 since Putin came to power in 2000, and nearly 2/3s were murdered. As Jesus said, “...people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19) That's one reason that the founders of our country put freedom of the press in the first amendment. Dictators hate the light of a free press.

Darkness can distort and disguise the truth as well. The internet has enabled us to have nearly instant access to the news. Reporting is no longer local but can spread globally. Unfortunately, so can badly reported or deliberately distorted news. And now there is fake news, things made up out of whole cloth. Some of the fake news is propaganda but some is simply done to make money. NPR recently tracked down the person behind a fake story about a fictitious FBI agent and his wife dying in an apparent murder/suicide after leaking emails in the recent scandal. The publisher said the story, which featured a fake town and fake people, got 1.6 million views and was done not to influence the election but simply to drive traffic to certain websites and their advertising. He has 25 domain names and makes $10,000 to $30,000 a month. And he will continue to do so as long as people do not check to see if reputable news sites back up or fact check the stories he makes up.

Like good journalists, our only weapon as Christians is the truth. We proclaim the good news of God in Christ calling all people to him for forgiveness, healing and restoration. Our job has gotten harder because of the cacaphony of competing voices essentially broadcasting any kinds of “news” you can imagine. Paul foresaw this. He wrote, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) Paul is recognizing something we now call confirmation bias. Scientists have learned that people tend to select out data that seems to agree with their deeply-held beliefs and ignore or explain away facts that contradict those beliefs. This bias is so strong that showing people stuff that disproves their beliefs just makes them more firmly committed to their worldview. We are more concerned with our justifying our personal opinions than in learning the truth.

What I find fascinating is how people who supposedly base their beliefs on the Bible will disregard scriptures that contradict their personal understanding of Christianity. You would think they would change their views to conform to the whole of scripture. Thus we have churchgoers who put their trust in political leaders despite the fact that the Psalmist says not to. (Ps 146:3-9) We have churchgoers who believe revenge is all right even though Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. (Matt 5:39, 44) We have churchgoers who think it is ok to turn away the homeless, aliens and refugees though the Old Testament explicitly says to shelter the homeless (Isaiah 58:7; Leviticus 25:35-36) and Jesus, who, along with Mary and Joseph, was a refugee in Egypt, said that not welcoming the alien is tantamount to not welcoming him. (Matt 25:43) As Stephen Colbert, who teaches Sunday School, said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to.”

Light can be harsh. There's a reason why those in power are not really in favor of people telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That's in large part why they felt that Jesus had to die. That's why those who preach a santitized and comfortable version of the gospel become popular and those who preach the unvarnished and uncomfortable truth are not. In the same way, as a nurse I have found that people prefer not-very-good doctors with good bedside manners over quite good doctors with less than comfortable bedside manners. As Paul said, people would rather hear what they want to hear than listen to the truth. But the only way to get better is to get the real diagnosis and to follow a treatment plan that is honest if not the most pleasant.

This does not mean being mean. Paul says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” (Ephesians 4:15) The purpose of knowing and acting on the truth is not to lord it over others or gloat over their flaws but to become more Christlike. Indeed in our passage from Romans just two verses after telling us to “put on the armor of light” we are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think Paul is using the same kind of parallelism we see in the Psalms and other Hebrew poetry. The two phrases are two ways of saying the same thing. To put on the armor of light is to put on Jesus Christ.

And how are we to do that? When I was acting in school and community theatre, to become a character, I had to study what he said and did and then practice saying and doing those things. I would think about why he spoke and acted as he did. Once I realized that my character had to be in love with the female lead from the beginning of the play rather than out-of-nowhere at the end. It changed the whole play for the better. With the help of the director I had to learn to relate to the other characters. I hoped that eventually people would not see me, Chris Todd, pretending to be someone else but would instead come to see the character I inhabited in all that I said and did.

In a sense that is how we become more Christlike. We study and learn Jesus' words and deeds. We put them into practice. We look for his motivation in it all. With the help of his Spirit we learn how to act towards and in concert with others. If we immerse ourselves in Christ, we will begin to see others as Jesus sees them and they will see him in us. We will speak to others as he would and they will hear him in our words. We will reach out to help and heal and comfort others as he would and they will feel his love and power in our actions.

The way to fight the darkness is to light the darkness. Put on the armor of light. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Be the light of the world.